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What's Rea​l, What's Fiction?

July 8, 2010 By:
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In the last few works published by famed Israeli novelist Amos Oz, the author has looked back upon his life. There was his massive and brilliant memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, in which he assessed his early years, his family and his nation as they all struggled with wrenching emotional events. Panther in the Basement, a novella-length work, told the story of a young boy (not unlike Oz) as he comes of age during the last years of the British Mandate period. Now we have Rhyming Life & Death, recently issued in paper by Mariner Books, which may not be a look back in the strict sense. Still, it's a very personal work, and echoes many things that appear in its predecessors.

Like A Tale of Love and Darkness particularly, Rhyming Life & Death considers the literary life, albeit in fictional form. During eight hours in the life of an author (again not unlike Oz himself), we delve into matters of celebrity and creativity, desire and loneliness. The work is set in Tel Aviv on a broiling-hot night, when the central character, an unnamed writer, is scheduled to speak about his work at the Shunia Shor Community Center.

Though the work is only a little more than 100 pages in length, Oz manages to touch on all the issues -- profound and foolish -- that might greet a writer when he faces a group of his readers. He begins by cataloguing a number of the questions such "fans" might ask.

"Why do you write? Why do you write the way you do? Are you trying to influence your readers, and, if so, how? What role do your books play? Do you constantly cross out and correct or do you write straight out of your head? What is it like to be a famous writer and what effect does it have on your family? Why do you mostly describe the negative side of things? ... Do you draw the material for your stories from your imagination or directly from life? What does your ex-wife think of the female characters in your books? And, in fact, why did you leave your first wife, and your second wife? ... "

This string of questions -- and there are many others listed in the sizable block of prose that begins the work -- provides a fairly straightforward representation of what is often asked at such gatherings. And yet Oz is making fun of the whole process as well as satirizing the notion of questioning the workings of an artist's mind.

Addressing 'the Author'

In the next scene, we're offered a glimpse into how Oz will answer these queries; in a sense, the imagination of the celebrated writer -- referred to as "the Author" throughout -- will provide the responses via little "mental" dramas and thus propel the book forward.

Shortly before he is expected to speak, he enters a cafe near the center and notices "a tired waitress in a short skirt, and with high breasts."

She "dabs a cloth over his table: but the Formica remains sticky even after she has wiped it. Maybe the cloth was not clean."

This woman is the first "character" to catch the Author's eye. He continues to steal looks at her as he awaits the appearance of his food, then in his mind creates a whole life for her. He imagines her first love (he calls the waitress Ricky), how the callous young man breaks her heart, but also how she's never stopped "dreaming that one day he will come back ... ."

And so it goes: Wherever the Author looks -- two men in their 50s sitting in the cafe get the same treatment -- or wherever he goes -- the community center, for example -- he picks out people and creates lives for them. His imagination runs wild, and the results are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, even touching, but always, well, imaginative.

All in all, the novella is a lighthearted meditation (with an occasional nod to seriousness) on the workings of creativity; in the course of the book, certain answers are provided (in dramatic form) to all those questions that began the narrative. We follow the Author until the early-morning hours, tracking his involvement first with the rather self-important cultural organizer who introduces him to the packed audience, then on to his amorous adventures, post-lecture, with the professional reader, Rochele Reznik, hired to recite passages from the Author's most recent work. Along the way there are riffs on audience members, some of them satiric, others presented with a measure of poignancy.

As is the nature of playful postmodernist works like Rhyming Life & Death -- the title comes from a supposed volume of poems by the "veteran" poet Tsefania Beit-Halachmi, who's quoted by the cultural organizer -- we are never quite certain what is real and what the Author has cooked up for our delectation.

But isn't that exactly how it's supposed to work in fiction?

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